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Allegheny County dodges the measles, COVID-19 continues to take a toll

A man gets a COVID-19 vaccine.
Matt Slocum

Pennsylvania's recent measles outbreak has not reached Allegheny County — for that, Allegheny County Health Department's Dr. Barbara Nightingale is thankful. During Wednesday's Board of Health meeting, Nightingale even knocked on the wooden podium while addressing the board.

"In Allegheny County, we've been very lucky," said Nightingale, the department's deputy director of clinical services. "We haven't detected a case since 2019."

Measles is a highly contagious viral illness that spreads through the air; it can cause severe brain infections and death. However, a two-dose vaccine is 97% effective. Adults who were born before 1957 are considered immune to the disease.

The patients infected in the current measles outbreak, which was first reported in early December, were all unvaccinated. The state's health department reports that six individuals reside in the state's southeastern corner, and one lives in northcentral Pennsylvania.

The state Health Department said the northcentral case is not linked to the other six. However, all seven people were infected after traveling, living abroad, or having contact with an infected person who was recently out of the country.

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"Historically, January through May is the peak time for importation of measles infections to the United States," said the state Health Department. Allegheny County's 2019 measles outbreak occurred in May and was also travel-related.

Regarding other infectious diseases, COVID-19 continues to present a threat: Nightingale noted that about one Allegheny County resident dies every day from the virus, and hundreds are hospitalized weekly.

So far, six people have died and 19 hospitalized due to influenza since the start of October, which marks the beginning of the respiratory virus season. There have been 202 hospitalizations from RSV, but no deaths.

Though county-level vaccination data isn't available, the National Immunization Survey shows that Pennsylvania-wide, just 21.1% of adults and 10.7% of kids have gotten the most recent COVID-19 shot — the numbers are better for the flu: 44.4% of adults and 51.1% of children.

In addition to respiratory illnesses, the county health department is expanding its mosquito-mitigation efforts to new areas, including Wilkinsburg and McKees Rocks. Warmer and more humid weather caused by climate change contributes to a rise in vector-borne diseases such as West Nile virus.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.